Blizzard has been busy lately, what with its massive merchandising efforts, helping launch Destiny 2 on PC, revamping Battle.Net, and building an esports stadium. But perhaps more important than all of those is the announcement of World of Warcraft Classic, which came in the form of a brief teaser trailer at the 2017 Blizzcon. After years of drama and desperate begging from some of World of Warcraft’s most dedicated fans, Blizzard is making one of the biggest moves in the current games industry to officially undertake a massive effort for historical preservation.
This has been a long time coming. As we’ve covered just this year, there have been major, underground efforts by the fans to not only maintain, but painstakingly create what they called “vanilla servers.” These were private (or pirate depending on your perspective) servers that would revert World of Warcraft to its Burning Crusade-era state or even back to the pre-expansion stage. Back then, World of Warcraft was an incredibly different game from what it is today.
That may sound obvious, but by incredibly different, I mean almost a literal different game. Over the years, the entire structure of World of Warcraft has changed, as Blizzard has continuously changed how things work to make the game more appealing on a casual level. On top of that, Blizzard also updated the game’s visuals, totally recreating and replacing almost all of World of Warcraft’s art assets.
To some, these moves made World of Warcraft less appealing, because they appreciated the more challenging structure of it back in the day. To others, “vanilla” World of Warcraft became a piece of lost history, with work that actual human beings poured their hearts and souls into utterly lost to time. Because preserving history is something of a struggle in video games, this is more content and art that was simply gone, seemingly forever.
Of course, these efforts were shut down by Blizzard’s legal teams. Some of these developers even made the effort to reach out to Blizzard to talk about these projects being supported or adapted in some official capacity. Reports came back with varying degrees of success, but with no official word from the company. But now it seems like Blizzard was indeed listening, and thus we have World of Warcraft Classic.
There’s no information yet on what this entails, aside from what looks like a bit of in-universe kayfabe to explain the existence of such a thing. The teaser features a Gnome-built time portal making it all happen, a cute little detail. Blizzard says World of Warcraft will be a server of its own and spoke in vague detail of this being a re-imagining of the old content, of emulating the experience without the ugly parts (perhaps speaking to technical issues of the past). Does this mean old content with new assets, rebuilt versions sporting the old look, or what? We won’t know for a while, as the latest expansion is likely to take priority for now.
But this is still the most important thing Blizzard is working on. It showed that being a vocal minority can work. It shows that games are art and deserve to be treated like art. So much archival work is done for other media, but so little is done for games outside of emulation, which is a constant legal battle. Some companies, like Capcom, have done good, recent work with compilations, but in small chunks, and other publishers sometimes dump all its legacy content on services like Steam or GOG. But Blizzard is hopefully setting further precedent that a major publisher-slash-developer can set aside resources to officially support preservation efforts, and the goodwill is worth the potential loss.